January 24, 2021

Emirates Golf Club

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Pro Landscaper Gulf talks to Craig Haldane about how he maintains a golf course in a climate where the grass grows all year round.

Emirates Golf Course opened in 1988 and was the first grass golf course in the Middle East. Maintenance of the course is the responsibility of Craig Haldane, who started his career at the renowned Fancourt Hotel and Country Club Estate in his native South Africa.

Craig began his career in the Middle East at the Royal Golf Club in Riffa, Bahrain, in 2001 before joining Dubai Golf, which owns the Emirates Golf Course, five years later. He is in charge of course maintenance at both the Emirates Golf Club and Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club and has become one of the leading sports turf managers in the region.

Emirates Golf Course was designed by American architect Karl Litten and officially opened in 1989 when it hosted the Karl Litten Desert Classic, now the Omega Dubai Desert Classic. In 1988 the site was literally an oasis with nothing surrounding it, now it sits in the centre of new Dubai.

An 18-hole course – ‘The Majlis’ – was originally constructed, with the club expanding to 36 holes in 1996 by building ‘The Wadi’. In 2006, The Wadi was redesigned by Nick Faldo and was renamed The Faldo course. The club now boasts an executive par 3 course (a nine-hole course featuring holes between 100 and 190 yards) so it can offer 45 holes of golf to its ever-growing membership.

The facility employs a maintenance crew of 68, larger than average because grass grows all year round with no down period, frost or snow. The course is overseeded in winter as well. Craig introduced a cool season grass variety on all surfaces except the greens, which are mowed seven days a week, as are the fairways and tees. Bermuda grass is used on the greens and is intensely maintained.

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The right machinery is key for Craig. “We have cylinder mowers and grass cutting machinery. The fleet is predominantly Ransomes Jacobsen as we have a corporate agreement with them, although we do use Toro machines too. We use walk-behind mowers on our greens, tees and approaches for presentation reasons, and ride-on fairway machines, which are all cylinder mowers. Our rough mowers are your typical rotary mowers. We maintain 400 acres of property, of which 220 are maintained turf areas excluding landscaping, which is probably around another 50 acres on top of that. The facility invested in a new Toro irrigation system in 2012. It is automated and phenomenally good. If you were talking to me about our irrigation system three years ago it would have been a very different conversation!”

The pump station can pump water at 6,500 gallons per minute. The main golf course has fully automated Toro sprinkler heads with individual head control so each head has a wire connected to the satellite control system which Craig can programme through his computer. When the system was installed and programmed, it was set up so information from the golf course is sent to a computer and maps exactly where each head is. Craig also has a weather station on the course.

“We work on the Evaporating Transpiration [ET] rating, so every day the ET will come up and down depending on humidity, wind and temperature,” Craig said. “ET rating is the amount of moisture you lose to the atmosphere. In the past you used a thumb-suck to get a feel for it, but now the rating is telling us how much water to use to at least replace the ET for the day, and we calculate from that how much more or less is required.”

Every individual sprinkler head, especially around the greens, is individually programmed to supply the amount of water required. Via a combination of information from the weather station and measuring the moisture, the maintenance team can calculate what needs to be replaced overnight to get it up to the preferred levels of moisture again. “We have reduced our water usage significantly [by about 30%] just by investing in the new irrigation system alone,” Craig explained. “It’s about the efficiency of the design. The old system had big heads throwing water 30 or 40m, which was wasting water in the desert areas and didn’t really conform to our environmental goals at the time.”

Emirates Golf Club was recently certificated by the Golf Environmental Organisation, a body that provides information on the best practices to incorporate into a golfing facility. It brought in independent consultants to inspect the course, which Craig said has been of great help.

Emirates Golf Course uses various fertility programmes for the two different grass species. The Faldo course has paspalum grass, whereas the Majlis Course uses Bermuda grass. Each fertility programme is the opposite of the other. Craig is a big fan of liquid fertilisers, mainly because the water he uses is quite high in sodium. He said: “All our water is recycled and we don’t use any fresh water on the facility.

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Another myth about golf courses is about the waste of water, we are actually efficient with what we use through the design. With sodium comes other issues such as calcium deficiencies etc. We apply a lot of liquid-based calcium because the calcium in the soil isn’t necessarily available to the plant.”

Lack of water is an issue. Average yearly rainfall is two inches, and that comes in one fell swoop. Another challenge for the team is managing salt levels. The hotter it gets, the higher the ET level, so the salts get drawn up into the surface, which Craig needs to keep at bay. Disease is something else to be mindful of because of the humidity.

Craig explained that his routine hardly changes in the run up to the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, only the frequency rises. “The tournament gives us an opportunity to push the boundaries in terms of the conditioning. The manpower increases because I can utilise the team that maintains The Faldo Course.”

The biggest seasonal change is the overseeding process – a massive exercise and, in Craig’s opinion, probably his most important task. Overseeding takes place at the end of October, when the Bermuda grass becomes semi-dormant. Now in his 10th year of working at the facility, Craig keeps abreast of worldwide industry developments by putting his teams through education programmes. He said: “As an industry, we pride ourselves on the openness of communication across the sector. We have the Middle East Greenkeepers Association. It is very informal but we meet two or three times a year.”

Craig also keeps up to date by attending shows across the world and undertaking online education programmes.

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